George Bentley was the Horsham hero with two saves in a dramatic penalty shoot-out as the Hornets survived a testing night on the coast to win through to the quarter-finals of the Senior Cup for only the second time since 2012.
The former Brighton & Hove Albion goalkeeper saved efforts from Littlehampton’s James McKernan and Dan Swain, whilst Harry Mills, Chris Smith, Jerry O’Sullivan and Lea Dawson all successfully converted from the spot for the visitors who had looked like exiting the competition until Alex Kelly popped up with a dramatic 89th minute equaliser.
The result was tough on the Southern Combination League Division One table-toppers as they more than matched their loftier opponents, who struggled to reproduce the sort of form that had taken them to the top of the Isthmian Premier Division yet who might have won the tie in extra-time had Mills’ effort not struck both posts before being cleared.
The Hornets made a number of changes to the side beaten by Margate at the weekend, with O’Sullivan, Kelly and Dylan Merchant coming in for the benched Steve Metcalf, Jack Brivio and Mills, while Charlie Harris and new signing Taurean Roberts replaced the unavailable Rob O’Toole and Lee Harding. There was also a place among the substitutes for teenage striker Archie Goddard, scorer of four goals for the U23s on Monday night, while the Marigolds fielded former Hornet George Gaskin up front and Alex Duncan on the bench.
An even opening presented both sides with a chance of opening the score with barely five minutes on the clock, the first coming when Kieron Pamment headed a Harris cross straight at home ‘keeper James Binfield and then Harry Russell moved forward only to shoot too high to trouble Bentley in the Horsham goal. Roberts might have made an early name for himself at his new club when a corner was only half-cleared, yet his snapshot bobbled wide of the post, before a misplaced pass by Joe Shelley put Gaskin clear on goal but his lob, although beating Bentley, dropped wide.
Horsham responded when, this time, Pamment was the provider for Harris but his header was off target. Littlehampton looked dangerous when, on 25 minutes, Mitchell Hand whipped in a great free-kick from which a goalbound header was saved and Dan Hegarty’s attempt to put away the rebound was cut out. The Marigolds were doing most of the pressing and a silky passing move saw another chance go begging when Gaskin put a header past the outside of the post. The competitiveness of the fixture saw Dawson and Littlehampton’s Shay Wiggans booked for strong challenges, with Harris unable to capitalise from a couple of free-kicks.
With just five minutes to go to the break, and both sets of players looking forward to returning to the relative warmth of the dressing rooms, the Marigolds went in front. A corner was knocked long to the far post where poor marking enabled the ball to get dragged back into the middle where Swain gleefully smashed the ball beyond Bentley. Harris was off target with an attempt to level things up on the stroke of half-time to leave the home side with the comfort of a one goal lead at the turnaround.
H/T Littlehampton Town 1 Horsham 0
Horsham sent on Gary Charman for Pamment at the start of the second half but it was the hosts who continued to enjoy the better of things, with Gaskin firing one into the side-netting just a minute after the restart. Roberts was denied when his shot was deflected behind for a corner, sparking a period of Horsham pressure that saw Kelly drive forward with a promising run marred only by a wasteful finish and a Charman header that was well saved by Binfield.
Great combination play between Roberts and Harvey Sparks deserved more than the unconverted corner that resulted, before the Hornets made two quickfire substitutions, sending on Mills for Harris and Brivio for Roberts, with just a quarter of an hour left in which to preserve the side’s Senior Cup involvement this season. Shelley spurned a great chance at getting Horsham back on terms when, unmarked, he was unable to hit the target from a Kelly corner while, at the other end, Gaskin tested Bentley with a dipping half volley.
Frustrations came to the fore as the Marigolds’ Hand and Jordan Layton, along with O’Sullivan, were each yellow-carded as the match entered a final ten minutes that was played almost entirely in the home half. Dawson saw his follow-up effort, after a Brivio shot was blocked, quickly closed down before Binfield’s goal was finally breached. Just a minute of regular time remained when Mills slipped the ball through and Kelly slotted the ball past the ‘keeper for a neat finish. Chris Smith might have won the tie a minute later but Binfield was well-placed to parry and, despite plenty of late pressure, the home goal remained intact, sending the contest into a further half hour.
Horsham remained on the front foot and, after Kelly’s long range effort had provided a straightforward catch for Binfield, Smith set up Mills for a shot that somehow contrived to hit both posts before being cleared off the line. It had been some while since Bentley had been called into action but he was thankful to see a dipping strike by Harry Russell just clear his crossbar as Littlehampton reminded their opponents of their goalscoring threat. Dawson then saw his attempt swatted away by the ‘keeper but the last action of the first half of extra-time ended in a scare for the Hornets when McKernan crept in behind O’Sullivan at the back post only to send his shot into the side-netting.
The final fifteen minutes belonged to the Hornets, with Charman heading a Sparks cross narrowly wide, Binfield diverting an effort from the marauding Mills away from danger before taking two attempts to save from Kelly and then watching as Mills dragged a shot well wide from a ricochet inside the Marigolds’ penalty area. The visitors’ final chance saw Smith put a header wide and so the Hornets were left to face their first penalty shoot-out since their defeat of Southwick in the Brighton Charity Cup, almost eight years ago.
Craig Nagle drew first blood for the hosts, calmly sending Bentley the wrong way, but Mills levelled things up. Bentley then guessed the right way to keep out McKernan’s powerful attempt and Smith put the Hornets in the driving seat when his spot-kick crashed into the net off the underside of the crossbar. Goalscorer Swain was next to be denied when Bentley guessed correctly once more to keep out a decent strike and, after O’Sullivan and Hand had each netted in turn, it was left to Dawson to strike the winning blow to send Horsham through to the last eight.